Extraction Operations on Indigenous Peoples' Land without Consent Cause Irreparable Harm, Speakers Stress, as Permanent Forum Begins Session
The explosive growth of extractive operations around the world often plays out on indigenous people’s lands without their consent, causing irreparable harm to their livelihoods, cultures, languages and lives, speakers told the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues today, as it opened its 2022 session amid calls to respect their free, prior and informed consent on the existential decisions uprooting their communities.
Gathered in the General Assembly Hall for the first time in three years, indigenous representatives were welcomed in a traditional ceremony led by Katsenhaienton Lazare of the Bear Clan, Mohawk of the Haudenosaunee, who acknowledged nature in its great diversity — the winds, thunders, lightening, sun and other life forces — which give purpose and protection to humankind, and summoned generations of traditional ancestors who still have much to offer today’s societies.
The invocation dovetailed with the theme of the Forum’s twenty-first session — “Indigenous peoples, business, autonomy and the human rights principles of due diligence including free, prior and informed consent” — and start of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, 2022-2032.
In opening remarks, Permanent Forum Chair Darío José Mejía Montalvo (Colombia), who was elected at the meeting’s outset, said the 2022 theme touches upon the universal cosmos visions through which indigenous peoples have developed their own systems for food, culture and coexistence with nature on their territories.
“We share a holistic relationship with nature, where rights are not anthropocentric,” he explained. Nature allows indigenous peoples to have certain rights but reserves others, as a way of maintaining balance and harmony. For many indigenous peoples, the Earth is their mother, while for others, it is the sea, wind, rain, thunder, mountain, snake or the eagle. “Ultimately, an infinity of sacred histories and stories underpin our visions of the world,” he said
Ancestors too have rights — including to continue to exist — because their task is enduring in the preservation of life, he continued, asserting that “this is not romanticism. This is life.” These ancestral practices maintain life in all its forms, with dignity. Therefore, the question of whether indigenous knowledge is scientific is “meaningless”. Concepts of life, energy and spirituality are synonymous. Separating them from an economic, religious or other point of view leads to confusion, disputes and unnecessary clashes. In the cosmos, on Earth and in the hearts of plants, insects, rivers and seas, there are no divisions.
By contrast, he said that while indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination, land, resources and — importantly — free, prior and informed consent are guaranteed under international norms, these rights are often not applied, even in countries where they are legally recognized. They are, instead, routinely violated by States in the granting of lumber, timber, mining, mega-dam and other contracts. The pillaging of their resources, loss of their ways of life, cultures and languages, and the disappearing and killing of their leaders are the results of harmful business activities. The unsatisfactory responses from Governments meanwhile underscore the need to bring these issues to the Forum’s attention.
He went on to express deep concern over the current energy matrix and called for change, without which the extermination of indigenous peoples will continue, along with expropriation of their lands and the sweeping aside of their rights. He pressed States to help devise a legally binding instrument to regulate transnational business activities — one that adheres to international human rights and includes explicit provisions for indigenous peoples’ rights to their lands, territory and resources, and for their free, prior and informed consent on decisions affecting them.
He described the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 169 as “fundamental lodestars” in this regard and warned that industries from fashion and media to textiles, food and pharmaceutical production are perpetuating “enclave economy models” that expropriate knowledge and practices from indigenous peoples.
More broadly, he encouraged States to replicate what the Ibero-American Institute for Indigenous Languages has done to promote the use, conservation and revitalization of these languages. As well, he also encouraged the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women to adopt the Forum’s Draft General Recommendation on the rights of indigenous women and girls. Underscoring to the central importance of recognizing indigenous peoples’ rights in investigation for transitional and restorative justice, he said: “All of these efforts must be interlinked and stepped up.”
Echoing those calls, General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid (Maldives) said that for generations, indigenous communities have prioritized a relationship with nature - grounded in kinship, centred around reciprocity and infused with reverence. “By emulating their example on a broader scale, we can preserve the Earth’s rich biodiversity and diverse landscapes.” With their involvement, the United Nations will be better positioned to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, while leaving no one behind.
He pointed out that indigenous people comprise less than 5 per cent of the global population, yet protect 80 per cent of global biodiversity, stressing that high linguistic diversity occurs where conditions for biological diversity thrive. “It’s the richness of one that sustains the other,” he explained.
There is growing scientific evidence that indigenous languages that are rich in oral traditions offer evidence for events that happened thousands of years ago, he said. “By preserving and promoting these languages, we preserve and promote an important part of our human heritage, identity and belonging.” Further, in acknowledging indigenous linguistic and cultural contributions, “we have an obligation to ensure that they can participate in and benefit from the work of the United Nations,” he said. “My personal commitment to implement the mandates related to indigenous people will be unwavering.”
Also addressing participants, Economic and Social Council President Collen Vixen Kelapile (Botswana) said the Forum’s expert advice — as an advisory body to the Council — is crucial to highlighting the key issues affecting indigenous peoples.
He said the high-level political forum on sustainable development — to be held in July and feature the national reviews of 45 Member States — will offer a significant opportunity for indigenous peoples to showcase their traditional knowledge on biodiversity, climate change and environmental stewardship. He urged Member States to seek their participation, adding: “I look forward to your recommendations which should be built into the Council’s different platforms.”
Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs Liu Zhenmin — in a message delivered by Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs Maria-Francesca Spatolisano — stressed that indigenous peoples customarily claim and manage more than 50 per cent of the world’s land, yet only legally own 10 per cent of it. As a result, 40 per cent of the land surface — 5 billion hectares — remain vulnerable to land grabbing and environmental destruction. When indigenous communities resist these actions, they often face extreme reprisals.
He cited a 2020 analysis revealing that 331 human rights defenders were killed — 26 per cent of them specifically while defending indigenous people’s rights, describing these figures as “startling”. In the last year, United Nations entities have worked together to improve their response, he said, strengthening their engagement with country teams and seeking ways to enhance indigenous people’s participation in the Organization’s processes.
In other business, the Forum elected by acclamation Phoolman Chaudhary (Nepal), Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim (Chad), Anne Nuorgam (Finland), Geoffrey Roth (United States) and Aleksei Tsykarev (Russian Federation) as Vice-Chairs of the twenty-first session, along with Tove Søvndahl Gant (Denmark) as Rapporteur. It also adopted the provisional agenda for the twenty-first session (document E/C.19/2022/1) and its work programme, as orally revised (E/C.19/2022/L.1/Rev.1)
In the afternoon, the Forum held thematic dialogues on the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, 2022–2032, in which representatives of indigenous peoples’ groups, Governments and United Nations entities reflected upon the impact of decades of exclusion of indigenous peoples from decisions affecting their lives and offered avenues for rectifying these injustices.
The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues will reconvene at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, 26 April, to continue its twenty-first session.
In the afternoon, the Forum held a thematic dialogue on the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, 2022–2032, in a hybrid in-person/virtual format, during which representatives of indigenous peoples’ groups, Governments and United Nations entities described success and challenges.
A speaker from the Native Youth Alliance was among several indigenous representatives to denounce rampant Government practices that set in motion decades of violent discrimination. Informing the Forum that he was stolen out his mother’s home as a child, he said that, at 67 years old, he can no longer speak his native Omaha language. “English is not my language,” he emphasized. “Give me a chance to get my language back. It was stolen from me.”
A speaker from the Assembly of First Nations, Canada, similarly denounced the genocidal policies across Turtle Island, which were designed to kill “the Indian in the child” by placing them in “residential schools” and forbidding them from speaking their language. Separated from their families, thousands of children died in these institutions and were buried without ceremony. Intergenerational trauma is evident today in children and adults who do not speak their native languages fluently. She called on Canada and other Governments to invest the same amount in rebuilding these languages as was spent on destroying them.
A speaker from the Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean warned that her region is confronting a linguistic emergency. Of its 560 languages, between 40-60 per cent are at risk of disappearance, due to racism and other factors, including transmission between generations and international standards on culture and linguistics rights.
A speaker from the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus described indigenous languages as the “underappreciated conduit” between ecological knowledge, biodiversity, planetary protection and indigenous community health. She pressed United Nations agencies to work with States to expand K-12 indigenous education, and the World Health Organization (WHO) to prioritize indigenous languages as a determinant of health, including for the planet.
Several indigenous speakers focused on solutions. A representative of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee, Botswana, which represents 35 organizations, said that there are more than 2,000 indigenous languages on the continent. Yet, post-independence, they are on the verge of being lost. However, the Amazigh language has been introduced into Morocco’s education system — a first in an African experience. Such initiatives are the only way to pass on languages from generation to the next.
The speaker from Global Home for Indigenous Peoples, an indigenous representative from the Tharu community in Nepal, said the role of Member States is critical in endorsing the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and in transforming its principles into practices that promote indigenous languages. However, he cautioned that that the uptick in indigenous children’s enrolment in primary and secondary school does not mean these children are being taught in their native language.
A representative of Cherokee Nation said his community is building a language centre with 14 programmes to advance the Cherokee language. “We must set real goals for the Decade to create and inspire more speakers,” he said.
Highlighting achievements, a speaker from the Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and Far East of the Russian Federation said new textbooks have been published. The Government also has approved an educational committee on the graphic aspects of her language, while the President has adopted a decree modernizing the teaching of indigenous languages and established a federal institute.
A speaker from the United Confederation of Taino People likewise announced that the first Taino dictionary and grammar guide will be published later this year, helping to raise the visibility of the First Peoples of the Americas. He also highlighted a recently published phonetic English to Arawak dictionary as a success for the revitalization of indigenous languages
“Languages are about more than words, connecting people, communities and families, spanning distances and reflecting aspects of identity, culture, spirituality and self-determination, said Canada’s representative, one of several Governments to outline national initiatives. Canada is working with indigenous partners to develop a plan that reflects their vision of the International Decade, prioritizing the urgent need to revitalize and promote their languages, while acknowledging the distinct realities between and within First Nations, Innuit and Métis.
The delegate of Denmark said that the 2009 Act on Self-Government in Greenland established the Greenlandic language “Kalaallisut” as its official language. Through laws adopted by its Parliament, a language council and place names committee were established; both are served by a language secretariat. Kalaallisut is spoken by the majority of the 56,000 people of Greenland, and as such it is strong and vibrant.
The representative of Ukraine, a Crimean Tatar, said her country is being shelled by Russian bombs and her people are being killed, raped and tortured to death. For eight years, Crimea has suffered occupation by the Russian Federation. The Tatars are trying to survive, despite the ethnic cleansing and other crimes, and fighting with Ukraine for freedom and peace. The Russian Federation wants to eliminate Crimean Tatar, a severely endangered language, in order to purport the false narrative that Crimea is a native Russian land. In contrast, Ukraine returned the Crimean Tatar language and alphabet to Latin, which better reflects its roots, and adopted a 2022-2032 strategy for indigenous languages just hours before the unprovoked invasion on 24 February.
Mexico’s representative, speaking for the Group of Friends of Indigenous Peoples, called on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to work with both Governments and indigenous peoples themselves to identify tech companies willing to engage on using technologies for digital empowerment. Speaking in her national capacity, she highlighted the “Delimix” online platform, bringing together Governments, academic and community initiatives focused on indigenous languages.
In a similar vein, Venezuela’s delegate said that in her country, 43 indigenous peoples speak 36 languages, all of them recognized officially. Indigenous peoples have been excluded by the actions of colonial powers and Venezuela has carried out several actions to correct that injustice.
A representative of the European Union, in its capacity as observer, said there are more than 60 indigenous, regional or minority languages spoken by 40 million people in the bloc, representing a common home in which diversity is celebrated.
The representative of Finland, also speaking for Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, said language is vital for ensuring active engagement in public life. “Everyone should be able to use their own language in society, without fear of discrimination,” she said. There was an opportunity to save and strengthen indigenous peoples’ languages. The Global Action Plan gives great guidance on how to do this, she noted, encouraging States to develop regional and national action plans towards that goal.
New Zealand’s delegate called for drastically increased efforts to promote indigenous languages around the world, stressing that “Māori language is sacred and helps to define who we are as New Zealanders.” The Māori Language Petition is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary and the document is foundational to the current linguistic landscape. The Government will look to strengthen efforts to strengthen the language’s revitalization.
Rounding out the discussion, an official from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) — the Organization’s lead agency of the International Decade — said indigenous peoples represent a distinct group whose rights to promote their languages must be protected. Success hinges on indigenous peoples owning and advancing the agenda.
A representative of UNESCO introduced a Secretariat note on the “International Decade of Indigenous Languages, 2022-2032: Global Action Plan” (document E/C.19/2022/5). In addition, Sven-Erik Soosaar, Forum member from Estonia, introduced the Secretariat note on “Use of Indigenous Languages in Formal Education Systems in Latin America, Southern Africa and Northern Eurasia” (document E/C.19/2022/10).
Also speaking today were representatives of Peru, Guyana and Bolivia, as well as speakers from the following organizations: Tebtebba, Congress of Aboriginal Peoples, National Confederation of Indigenous Women in Bolivia, and the International Indian Treaty Council.
Forum members from the Russian Federation, Bolivia and Estonia also spoke, as did Irma Pineda Santiago, Forum member from Mexico, who read a poem in Zapoteca language.